Controversial Subjects in the Classroom

Invariably, issues are raised in classrooms that bring charged responses from students. How can educators set the stage for safe, respectful dialogue and learning?

Three students in a college Shakespeare course I taught accused me of trying to make them say two female characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream were lesbians. Since my lesson plan involved Shakespearean diction and close reading, I didn't take them seriously.

I laughed.

My response made the students even angrier, and they stormed out of the room, one gliding defiantly out on roller blades.

It turns out, after having discussed race in Othello and anti-Semitism in Merchant of Venice, these three theater majors decided I was there to promote my "politically correct" worldview and anticipated the introduction of another taboo topic, homosexuality.

The dean of my department moved them to a new section where the instructor focused on staging and performance. They no longer had to worry about Shylock or Othello as characters experiencing the "isms" of today's world.

My remaining students walked on eggshells, worried I might retaliate against the whole class for the incident and probably felt rather awkward. The semester passed unremarkably. Everyone assiduously avoided "taboo" topics, so we likewise avoided critical issues relating Shakespeare to today's world.

Despite my embarrassment, I look back on the incident with gratitude because it forced me to reassess my teaching methods and realize the value of the teachable moments students offer.

Eventually, I understood the outburst had far less to do with the hypothetical existence of lesbianism in Shakespearean England than it did with three young men, all theater majors who enrolled in the class expecting to learn about the Great Bard, who felt like their needs and interests did not matter to me.

From Taboo to Teachable Moment
Those students had every right to march out of my class. I hadn't done anything to create an open, inclusive, respectful learning environment. I introduced topics they perceived as taboo without taking into account what they might need to feel comfortable "going there" as part of their academic inquiry.

Students resist taboo topics -- sexuality, religion, immigration, disability, race -- because these "hot" social issues often lead to emotional outbursts and interpersonal conflict. Many parents and administrators also find it inappropriate for teachers to delve into controversial matters in the classroom.

Consider the case of Tom Scheft, a teacher who used a popular soundtrack in his high school poetry class. The principal called him in at the end of the day, saying, "It has come to my attention that you have been imposing your religious values on your students."

Scheft said: "You mean... playing and studying songs from 'Jesus Christ Superstar'?"

The principal nodded: "Yes."

There was a 3-second pause, and then Scheft said, "Mr. Bullock... I'm Jewish."

Although Scheft was not addressing the "taboo" issue of religion in his class, nor did he have any personal investment in Christianity, the principal clearly feared a potential controversy over religious indoctrination that could have caused a community-wide outcry.

Constructive Controversy
Studies show discussing controversial issues in respectful and supportive classroom contexts increases political engagement and tolerance toward others. So, how might educators foster a culture of openness and curiosity? Ideally, by starting early.

"I visit all of my students at home before the school year begins, so I know that some families only own one book, the Bible," says Mary Cowhey, an early grades teacher and celebrated education author.

"I know the issue of religion will come up in my second grade class, as my students are Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Catholics, Unitarians, Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Episcopalians, atheists, Pentacostals, Buddhists, Wiccans and followers of other faith traditions.

"As their teacher, it helps me to understand the beliefs and perspectives of my students and their families before we begin, be they religious, cultural, or based on the fact that some of their families have two mommies."

At the beginning of the school year -- and all year long -- educators should employ activities conveying the genuine message students and their beliefs and ideas are important. Write ground rules together to guide class discussion, identify behaviors reflecting kindness and respect, ask students about the topics most exciting to them and keep focused on curricular content and its connection to everyday life.

Perhaps most important, help students embrace dialogue over debate. Debate is a familiar, taken-for-granted style of addressing controversial issues, one politicians indulge in and the media loves for its drama and quick, reductive points.

Alternately, students can learn to explore public issues through a less combative dialogue model. They can work toward clarifying and exploring the many facets of an issue by engaging in discussions that do not seek win/lose resolutions.

To achieve such democratic discussion patterns in class, however, teachers must model dialogic questioning and reasoning -- something I didn't do in my ill-fated Shakespeare class. I simply said, "Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock is anti-Semitic," shutting down any exploration. I should have broadened class dialogue by asking open-ended questions like, "What do we know about the history of anti-Semitism in Europe?" or "How would should we define anti-Semitism?"

As educators, we must strive to model openness and to honor students' individual beliefs, all the while encouraging them to learn from one another, and from us.

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